Monday, June 26, 2006


Bear with me for a few hundred words as I try to say five words about Shellac.

Buried my grandmother last week. She was, like so many here in Chicago, an on-and-off Catholic who shaded toward the off side. Heavily. Or that's my take. My pious mother would likely provide a different reading, but I think we'd agree that she was a cultural Catholic, a South Sider who sent her five children to religious schools for the sake of what we now call "values." If she wasn't a to-the-letter religious person, she saw something in the church that suited her.

Under these auspices, I went to mass for the first time in a long time. There's no doubt a funeral service has a difficult job to do. In the space of an hour, it's got to resolve the great ambiguity underlying everything to a here-and-now audience of sad people. No picnic. In my experience, you've got three possible avenues here: comedy, poetry and music.

Mass, by nature, is not funny. If you've got a good officiant, they can slip some humor into the post-gospel speech, but, mostly, it's all transubstantiation and, let me tell you, miracles, while fantastic, are a real comedy killer.

My grandmother had a very, very dry sense of humor, modern Manhattan dry I'd say, so it makes sense that, if you cared to, you could laugh at her funeral. The altar people, all of which were girls barely in junior high, were performing their first service and had a very old and soon-to-retire priest, miked up, giving directions as if he were the foreman for a set of movers. "No, no, over there!" Again, this is a moment where all involved are supposed to be reflecting on the mystery of mortality, and, instead, I felt like I was witness to the emergency room in a teaching hospital. I don't want to go heavy on the altar girls though. Perhaps the brightest moment of my day: the bright red pajama-style pants and clogs peeking out below one of the girls' robes. That's why you go to funerals. You might be hurting, but, don't forget, brightness lives elsewhere.

On the poetic notion front, it's a powerful idea, meeting one's loved ones in the afterlife, especially when it's not scorched by hellfire talk. The language in the typical Word and Song isn't Wallace Stevens, but the message got across. Whether or not I think this message is relevant isn't the issue, 'cause I know what my grandmother thought. (Warning: the next line gets maudlin. Skip to the next paragraph right away if I've nearly lost you.) Watching her over the years, it seemed to me that, though she enjoyed the heck out of her life, what she wanted most was to embrace her daughter, dead for many years now, and that hug was going to last for a long, long time. As someone who has to provide a narrative for everything, including this Shellac intro, I'll admit to hoping for the truth of that notion for her sake too.

Finally, here at Shake Your Fist, we're about music and we're not bashful about kicking the dog when it's been bad so let me say that the songs I've had to endure at mass since childhood are TERRIBLE! I knew it then and I know it even better now. The organ and voice lines follow each other *exactly* and there's no embellishment, no humanity, no nothing. Yes, I know everyone is supposed to be able to sing them, but that's no excuse. As Amy would say: I want my hooks! What I really wanted was some music, some words, some anything that had something to say about the moment everyone in that church was living through, anything about my grandma, anything about the world in which she actually lived.

And my brain started singing me some Mama Gina:

And if there is a heaven
Though I think that there's probably no heaven
She's probably dancing with you
She liked to dance
She would have liked you

Yeah, that wistfulness, that looking back, that hope curdled by rationality and resettled by love, the arm's-length acknowledgment of the afterlife. All of it, spot on. All of it, in some way, describing what I suspect is the religion of my grandma, if not most. Not what you'd expect from Steve Albini, Bob Weston and Todd Trainer, but it's easy not to give them the credit they deserve. Thank you, boys, for being there, again.

Mama Gina (Live on WNUR) - Shellac


Blogger Amy said...

I would never have thought it possible to eulogize a grandmother with Shellac. But you, my dear, have pulled it off. I daresay she'd like the track even less than I do, but be very touched by the gesture and your lovely and brave (given you're a very private person) words.

It's funny, because I was just thinking of my grandmother this weekend (gone 10 years now) when I referenced her Complete T.S. Eliot for that last post I wrote. I have my own copy somewhere, but always haul hers out because poetry was one of our many points of intersection. For her, I think, the attraction of Eliot was the liturgical cadence. Similar to your grandmother, she was a cultural Protestant; she loved the poetry and hymns. As do I, actually, making me wonder if perhaps the Catholic hymnbook is so different. Because I did pause when you said the thing about no humanity...

7:46 PM  
Blogger stevedomino said...

just a fantastic post - many thanks for sharing.

4:00 AM  
Blogger Jon said...

Thanks to both of you.

Amy: It was the opposite of my intention to paint either Catholic or Christian songs with a broad brush... hope I got personal enough that it didn't feel like it. I can only speak to what I've been hearing in big box Chicago and suburbs churches since I've been alive. I'm sure there are wonderful traditions there, but the masses I go to, the music ain't some Catholic version of gospel. Mid-tempo, major scale, extremely simple melodies sung by big female voices. Each of those things on its own is fine, but taken together it feels almost like listening to an advertising jingle. I can see why this is done, but that's not what gets my spirit up and out.

1:09 PM  

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